New hope for rural broadband users in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset

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Solutions can be found to connect the remotest communities in the Westcountry to the expanding superfast Internet network, business leaders believe.

More than £200 million has already been earmarked to upgrade connections to homes and businesses in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset.

The Superfast Cornwall programme is already well advanced, with nine of out ten properties already having access to some of the highest line speeds in the country.

And it’s hoped that the target figure of 95% will be exceeded by the time the scheme is due to finish next year.

Meanwhile, in Devon, a £94 million project has been launched to get fibre optic cable to 90% of properties with a bid for a further £22.75 million to reach half of the more difficult 10% being tabled.

The parish of Laneast, near Launceston in North Cornwall, is typical of those communities struggling with slow connections.

Villagers in Badgall, Laneast, St Clether and Tregeare suffer with some of Cornwall’s lowest broadband speeds – as little as 0.2MB – which can make using the Internet virtually impossible.

Superfast Cornwall’s development director Nigel Ashcroft met villagers at a public meeting last week.

“We are doing everything we can to bring these areas in to the programme and we will have an indication if we are successful over the next four to six weeks,” he said.

“Our ambition is to get this area covered by broadband, and if we can’t we are working on a follow-up programme which will include these villages. We are trying to get them into the current programme by March next year.”

Mr Ashcroft said there were some areas where the “investment case just doesn’t stand up” and that nowhere in the world had managed to achieve 100% connectivity.

But he added: “We are trying to work smarter. We are having a long, hard look at some of these smaller, out-of-the-way villages.

“We are checking to see where the nearest fibre is to them which could be quite close and would cut the costs down.

“We are looking to see if there is a suitable power supply in the village and where we could put in cabinets. We are really trying to use all our expertise to problem solve.”

Community knowledge and input, he added, was vital to making progress. In some cases, he explained, farmers had offered to dig the trenches needed for cables across their own land.

“We are very interested in solving what is a very real problem and if we work on it together, with people’s support, we feel much better about trying to find innovative solutions,” Mr Ashcroft said.

Lobbying by the villages, which were initially excluded from the first phase of the superfast roll out, has been supported by MP Dan Rogerson.

He said campaigners had done “an excellent job in highlighting their need for a decent internet connection which will allow them to access services and run businesses with greater efficiency”.

“I have been pushing for better broadband in North Cornwall for several years and very much hope Superfast Cornwall and BT will decide they can include Badgall, Laneast, Tregeare and St Clether after all,” Mr Rogerson added. “I thank Nigel Ashcroft and the Superfast Cornwall team for working to deliver this.

“If BT is unable to agree to the work under the current Superfast Cornwall scheme, I have received assurances that the coalition Government has provided funding to extend the Superfast Cornwall project to hard-to-reach communities like these, as long as Cornwall Council match funds it. The money is there, it just needs to be bid for.”

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has confirmed that Cornwall Council has been given an indicative allocation of £2.96 million from the £250 million Superfast extension programme, provided it matches that sum. The council has indicated it wants to take the offer this up and overmatch to £9 million.

Connecting Devon and Somerset are tabling a bid to the same fund to secure £22.75 million.

Meanwhile, the two counties have already been named among only eight pilot areas to connect the hardest to reach businesses in rural areas.

Satellite Internet, a specialist satellite internet service provider, secured £175,125 after a successful bid to the Government’s £10 million Broadband Innovation Fund.

The company specialises in bringing satellite to homes and businesses in rural and hard-to-reach areas all over the UK and Ireland.

The news of the successful superfast broadband bid has been lauded by the business community in Devon and Somerset as the “best news they have heard this year”.

Tim Jones, chairman of the Devon and Cornwall Business Council, said: “If you took a straw poll of businesses in this part of the world about having reliable rail network links or superfast broadband 80% of them would choose superfast broadband.

“Superfast broadband gives smaller businesses especially the self-employed people in rural locations a chance to grow and be competitive in term of connectivity with the rest of the UK.”

Announced in December 2013, the Broadband Innovation Fund was set up to explore how alternative technologies could reach areas where extending the fibre network might not be cost effective.

These extremely rural locations represent the final 5% of premises across the UK not already covered by the BDUK Superfast Britain programme.

Before the areas for trial can be selected, Satellite Internet will undertake a research phase in partnership with Connecting Devon and Somerset.

If the Government decide that the satellite pilot is feasible, deployment is due to begin in September 2014.

Mike Locke, Satellite Internet’s managing director, said: “We know from our customers in the region how important good broadband is for their daily life both business and domestic.

“Our project with Connecting Devon and Somerset will pilot new satellite technology to connect more people to Superfast in the most remote areas and share those results with broadband projects all over the country.”

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